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"The Presumption of Stupidity: Affirmative Action, Occupational Apartheid"

May/June 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

by Brent Staples

.... It is absurd to argue, as many critics do, that affirmative action has placed African-Americans under suspicion of incompetence, by propelling them into positions they do not rightly deserve. Bred into this country's bones, the presumption that blacks are inherently less "qualified" would be a driving force in any case. An alternative view of affirmative action is that it breaks down occupational apartheid, the notion that elite jobs are for white folks only. The process is wrenching, but how could it be otherwise?...

In high school, I was an average student, with no plans for college. Providence appeared in the form of a professor from Widener University who talked me into going to college one afternoon on a street corner. I was accepted without SAT's, but took them for ceremonial purposes. My scores were unimpressive, and the college was right not to care. Often the scores tell more about privilege than about "merit" or potential to succeed. I graduated 26th in a class of 370 at Widener, well ahead of many white prep-school kids who had done well on the SAT's. This black boy who was "not college material" went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

There are thousands of stories like this one. But in the Reaganaut 80's, many African-Americans who could tell those stories became converts to the gospel of Horatio Alger, suddenly claiming that success had been earned through hard work and rectitude alone. Poverty, they say, stems from sloth and moral laxness. The convert's role I will never play.

When I was 17, the society spotted me a few points on the SAT's and changed my life. I became a writer and a middle-class taxpayer-as many other black men went on to prisons, cemeteries and homeless shelters. Sounds like a small investment to me. The country would be wise to keep making it.

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